Is this blog about a wrestling move? No, stupid! This is a beer blog. Although later on W will be for Wheelbarrow Bulldog, which is a real wrestling move i just googled. This blog is about a specific hop in the hope that you, dear reader, get a sense of what it is like to choose a hop for a recipe and why certain hops are chosen when. It just so happens that the one that begins with N - Nelson Sauvin - is one of the hottest properties in craft brewing at the moment, and pleasingly not without its doubters. Ah! Craft beer, you are so delightfully contradictory sometimes. Also I am sorry for calling you stupid.
Nelson Sauvin, or Nelson for short, hails from New Zealand. Did you know hops are specifically bred and created? They don’t just bubble out of the ground as is? There is a lot of science to it. I know it doesn’t look it, but brewing is an immensely technical field. I always think the real reason piss ups are so hard to arrange in breweries is because brewers are actually boring nerds who like to talk about Alpha Acids and efficency rather than cool things like myspace and the latest morgan freeman movie.*
Nelson Sauvin was developed at New Zealand HortResearch. It was bred using a New Zealand Smoothecone variety and a selected New Zealand male [hops are plants and parts of them are ‘mated’ using ‘male and ‘female’ varieties] and was released in 2000. 2000! Only just old enough to buy a drink itself. Its distinct fresh crushed gooseberry smell is a descriptor often associated with the Sauvignon Blanc – hence the name Nelson Sauvin.
What is so attractive about this hop is that it is rare for something so aromatic to be so durable in early parts of brewing. It has quickly become the quintessential dual purpose hop; providing both intense, distinct flavour characteristics as well as high alphas. An excellent all-rounder, this hop is able to produce big punchy Ales as well as subtle yet bitter Lagers. So you can put it in early in the boil (which is when wort is heated and flavoured with hops to make something that the yeast can then attack, making alcohol and creating beer) but it won’t make it too bitter. Or you can put it late in the boil (traditionally this is where the flavour is really emphasised - with late addition hops) and it will add a delicious flavour that seems somehow extremely ‘full’ without being overpowering.
Nelson Sauvin is a very polarizing hop – it seems beer drinkers either love it hate it. When thrown in a kettle, it can produce a wide range of stunning flavor and aroma. Hop lovers can be dazzled, but the unsuspecting drinker may find its juicy bouquet overwhelming.
The wide range of flavors can be tough to manage for brewers, but also allows for different accents according to style. Depending on what the brewer is hoping to express, Nelson can make a powerfully aromatic ale by allowing the tropical aromas to shine, or a subtly bitter lager by expressing the spicy, earthy notes.
Or they can go for a balance of both. Such is the case with Alpine Beer Company, which makes the single-hopped Nelson, one of the most highly sought-after IPAs in the world.
Part of Nelson Sauvin’s charm can be attributed to New Zealand’s unique geography. As an isolated volcanic island in a temperate climate, the soil is extremely fertile and there’s minimal need for pesticides, allowing hops to grow big and tall. [insert stereotypical joke about Lord of the Rings].
Popular hops are hard to get. This is because a) other breweries buy them and b) hops, like grain, are harvest dependent. There are five or six major hop suppliers in the UK, they release annual price lists and they keep their clientele informed on current and likely availability - the latter being more or less completely dependent on the seasons that happened this time last year. Nelson is very sought after and not widely made as it is so climate dependent. There is a long term crippling shortage of another very popular hop, Citra, at the moment. Cue a lot of brewers hastily working out substitutions; a process where the same flavour profile is sought via a jiggling of recipes to include similar but slightly different hops, often at different times and different amounts to mitigate where possible. There is a lot of trial and error in brewing. A lot. Take it from us. We know how to trial errors all right.
Nelson is popular, it tastes good and it is as powerful as it is versatile. So you will find it in a lot of places - although not as many as brewers would like as it is expensive and hard to find sometimes. Tastes will vary, but for hop lovers, it may just be The One Hop to Rule Them All [sorry].
*Except for Friendship Adventure, who are massive party legends that would put Van Wilder to shame.